11 March, 2007

Pendragon, by Stephen Lawhead. Book review.

Edition reviewed: Lion, 1994, ISBN 0-7459-2763-7

Narrated by Merlin (Myrddin Emrys), this is Book 4 of a five-part fantasy retelling of some of the King Arthur legends. The setting shares the geography of Britain and Ireland some time after the end of Roman government, but as there is a colony of refugees from Atlantis living at Glastonbury I think it’s best regarded as a parallel universe sharing some geography and place names, rather than as a depiction of historical post-Roman Britain.

Arthur is brought up in the north, in the area around what is now Edinburgh and Lothian, and the Battle of Badon (Baedun in the novel) is apparently set in the same sort of area. Apart from a lengthy description of a stag hunt during Arthur’s childhood, the story effectively starts shortly after Baedun when Arthur goes to Londinium to be crowned High King of Britain. Gwenhwyfar, an Irish warrior princess, comes to Londinium to claim him as her husband and they are married there on the same day. On a visit to Gwenhwyfar’s relatives in Ireland, Arthur and his companions fight a fearsome Vandal war host led by Amilcar, nicknamed Twrch Trwyth or the Black Boar. The Vandals are driven out of Ireland, only to land in Britain and burn their ships showing that they intend to stay. Merlin, Arthur and their allies from the kings of Britain and Ireland have to pursue Twrch Trwyth and his war host in a deadly chase, culminating in a single combat on which the future of Arthur’s kingdom depends.

Stephen Lawhead’s style reminds me of Tolkien in some ways, even down to having a rhyme of lore at the front of the book:

Ten rings there are, and nine gold torcs on the battlechiefs of old
Eight princely virtues, and seven sins for which a soul is sold
Six is the sum of earth and sky, of all things meek and bold
Five is the number of ships that sailed from Atlantis lost and cold
Four kings of the Westerlands were saved, three kingdoms now behold
Two came together in love and fear in Llyonesse stronghold
One world there is, one God, and one birth the Druid stars foretold

Make of the rhyme what you will. There are further parallels with Tolkien in the presence of other races of people who seem different from ordinary humans. Earlier volumes in the series told how refugees from Atlantis sailed to Britain and established a colony at Glastonbury, led by their king Avallach (The Fisher King) and his daughter Charis (The Lady of the Lake). Merlin is the son of Charis and the great bard Taliesin, gifted with mystical powers and long life, and is Arthur’s chief bard and advisor. The Atlantis refugees are known as the Fair Folk, and another race of people, the Hill Folk or the Little Dark Ones, live in secret places in the hills of the north. Merlin has links with both races, as well as with the human world. So the tale is firmly planted in the realm of fantasy.

The story itself moves at a pace best described as stately, punctuated by fast action sequences in battle or hunt. Sometimes the narrative flips into present tense for a page or two during an action sequence, which is quite effective at conveying a sense of tension and speed. Battle scenes are vividly drawn, particularly the climactic single combat that lasts for three chapters and yet doesn’t drag.

The device of borrowing the legendary boar hunt from Culhwch and Olwen and making it a metaphor for a military campaign, with the Vandal leader as the ‘boar’ Twrch Trwyth and his warbands as his ‘piglets’, is a neat idea. Animal motifs are a not uncommon feature of names, so a name with an animal element could easily have found its way into folklore. The stem Cuno-, meaning ‘Hound’, appears in numerous Brittonic personal names over a long period, including a Cuneglasus (Blue Hound) attacked by Gildas and a Cunobelin from the time of the Roman invasion. Gildas also refers to a place called ‘receptaculum ursi’ (stronghold of the bear) and describes Maglocunus as ‘insularis draco’ (dragon of the island), which might be either a title or an insult depending on one’s interpretation.

Merlin narrates the tale in first person throughout, though as Merlin is an observant and somewhat detached character with wide knowledge and a tendency to comment on events, it feels more like an omniscient narrative. Certainly I didn’t get the claustrophobic feeling of being confined inside one person’s head that I often get from first-person narrative. There’s a clear distinction between the good guys (Arthur and his supporters) and the bad guys (Arthur’s enemies), as one expects in fantasy. Some of Twrch Trwyth’s Vandal followers are allowed to see the error of their ways and surrender to Arthur, but there is absolutely no indication that Arthur could ever be wrong in any right-thinking person’s eyes. People who disagree with Arthur are either evil or misguided, and there’s no space for alternative viewpoints.

This may contribute to the impression of rather shallow characters, many of whom seem to be what John Baker describes as embodied traits. So Arthur is noble, Gwenhwyfar is brave, Cai and Bedwyr are loyal, Gwenhwyfar’s father Fergus is quarrelsome but lovable, Bishop Urbanus is corrupt, and so on. Merlin seems to have a little more complexity, perhaps because he is the narrator. Overall, the novel was an easy read but not a particularly involving one.

Fantasy retelling of some of the King Arthur legends mingled with the legend of Atlantis.

Has anyone else read it?


Gabriele Campbell said...

I read the books a long time ago. Don't remember many details except Charis' bull dances which stood out in the Arthurian matière. The connection with Atlantis was an interesting one.

Now, where have I put those books?

Sandra said...

The Lawhead books come under my 'I looked at them, but decided not to pursue' category. I decided they were too fantasy-based for me. Also, as you say, they seemed rather uninvolving.

If I read fantasy, it tends to be alternative history set in a period I'm not particularly familiar with so I can't get indignant about the messing around ;-)

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

I haven't read them, Carla. They come under the heading of 'too many books and too little time' for me these days. Were I in my twenties, I might well have devoured them at that stage in my reading evolution, as I had quite a thing about Arthurian fiction and fantasy then. I'm not saying you have to be a twenty something to enjoy them, just that they would probably have struck more of a 'must read' chord with me then, rather than now. But thanks for the review anyway and who knows, I may yet pick one up at the library.

elena maria vidal said...

I read the Mary Stewart series about Merlin and Arthur years ago and some others as well, but not this one. It sounds interesting. Thanks for the review!

Constance Brewer said...

Hey, a book I actually read! :P Don't remember much about it. The only Lawhead book I read that I liked - and stuck with me- was Patrick, Son of Ireland. Maybe because it was a stand alone, I never got into Lawhead's series books. I think I may have hit my Arthurian period at the wrong time, like Elizabeth. :)

Kathryn Warner said...

I haven't read any of Lawhead's books - like Sandra, I found them too fantasy-based for my tastes when I flicked through them. But never say never...:)

Rick said...

I haven't read them, but from your description, this is another case where I wonder why the author didn't just create a parallel world? (In fairness, a synologue to Britain can as easily be called "Britain" as "Lyonesse," but real geographical names assert our-worldness in a way that semilegendary people's names do not.)

But since Lawhead didn't define his world as parallel, I'll enjoy a grump about a few things:

- Why would an Irish warrior princess* have the utterly Welsh name Gwenhwyfar?

- Vandals? Weren't Angles, Saxons, and Jutes barbarian enough?

- Amilcar! If I were a Carthagenian who somehow made it to c. AD 500, and I had a Vandal warband at my disposal, why would I go all the way to Britain for pillage and rapine? I'd go sack Rome, just to get a (however belated) one back at old Scipio Africanus and that son of a bitch Cato the Elder.

* Warrior princesses - enough is enough! It's good that we're done with useless, wimpie princesses, but do they all have to be warriors now? Wouldn't just shrewd and tough politician be okay?

Gabriele Campbell said...

Lol Rick, a Carthagenian in 500 AD so had a Vandal warband at his disposal - Carthage was the Vandal kingdom at that time. And they did make a trip to Rome. :)

Rick said...

Yes, Amilcar would be in just the right place to find some Vandals. Plus, Rome is right across the Med - way more convenient than remote Britain - and in spite of Alaric the Visigoth it was still eminently sackworthy, at least till well into the Byzantine-Ostrogoth war, or even till the Lombards finally showed up.

Carla said...

Gabriele - yes, I read one of the earlier books ages ago too, and noticed the bull dance. It reminded me of Mary Renault's Theseus novels.

Sandra - hello and welcome. Someone on another board told me that the earlier 3 books were better than Books 4 and 5, though I read Book 1 years ago and can't say I noticed much of a difference. The fantasy aspect at least means I don't take anything seriously - once an author introduces Atlantis I'm not going to care what else they do with the history (such as it is).

Elizabeth - I rather think they come under the same category for me, too. There are books I like much better on Arthur.

Elena - I read the Mary Stewart Merlin trilogy too, and reread them again very recently. I much prefer her version to Lawhead's, but each to his own.

Constance - Ha - just to prove I don't make them all up :-) I guess being fantasy it's more your purview? I keep seeing the Patrick book on the library catalogue, and really ought to give it a try some time, though this one has tended to shunt the rest of Stepehn Lawhead further down my list.

Alianore - I much prefer Mary Stewart's Merlin trilogy, if you fancy some Arthuriana. Have you read those?

Rick - Well, if I were a cynic, I'd say because he and/or his publisher reckoned it would be easier to sell anything with King Arthur in it. I read it as a synologue anyway - the Atlantis connection knocks any 'history' on the head for me instantlt, and that's before you get to Amilcar. Mind you, I suppose if refugees from Atlantis - which sounds remarkably like Mary Renault's Minoan Crete - bothered to sail past France, Italy, Spain, etc etc on the way to Britain, why not Amilcar's Vandals too? It's the irresistible climate, you know.

Re the warrior princess, if I were a cynic I'd wonder if there was an edition around with a cover showing a girl in a leather bikini with an unfeasibly large sword....

Gabriele Campbell said...

I liked Lawhead's Byzantium. The Crusade books weren't bad, either, entertaining stuff without leaving a lasting impression, much like the Arthur ones. They have the Grail, so it's not exactly historical fiction. :)

But I shouldn't say anything here; I have magical stones and the Atlantis connection (albeit it's already lost), lol.

Bernita said...

I think Mary Stewart spoiled me for other books on Arthur- found her set so satisfying.
Read the first three: Taleisin, Merlin and Arthur a long time ago.
If I remember rightly, a certain heavy, prophetic doom in the tone put me off, and the introduction of the Atlantis business tends to make me roll my eyes.

Rick said...

Re the warrior princess, if I were a cynic I'd wonder if there was an edition around with a cover showing a girl in a leather bikini with an unfeasibly large sword....

Now what would make you think something like that?

Surely you mean a chainmail bikini! Yet while chainmail is expensive stuff, are warrior princesses all so poor that they can't invest in a little more protection than that?

Though it would actually make sense if they were shrewdly political princesses. Then we could presume that they used the oversize swords only as a prop, relying instead on a technique that worked pretty well for Cleopatra, at least till she had to deal with cold fish Octavian ...

Carla said...

Gabriele - the magic stones and Atlantis neatly signals 'historical fantasy', so readers know what they're getting. Nothing wrong with that at all - quite the reverse.

Bernita - Yes, Mary Stewart's trilogy is hard to beat. Though there's still room for other takes on the legend - I forget whether I read her first or The Once and Future King first, but neither spoiled me for the other. The Sense of Doom and absence of humour seems to be near-compulsory in certain sorts of epic fantasy.

Rick - My mistake! Chain mail, obviously. (Don't even begin to imagine how uncomfortable it would be - Nigel Tranter has a scene in the Bruce trilogy somewhere with a girl in a chain mail bikini in some sort of pageant, but at least he gets a joke out of it. And she is using it as a prop in the Cleopatra sense).

I have a feeling that the sort of shrewdly political princess who really did exist would have recognised scanty chain mail and big swords as utterly ridiculous and liable to look more like a cheap tart with a gimmick than a Warrior Queen. When you get Eleanor of Aquitaine and Catherine the Great dressing up sexily in men's clothes, they're fully dressed. At least when they're riding with the army - the bedroom might have been a different matter! Cleopatra's supposed to have worn a bikini - if even that - in the rolled-up carpet incident, but then she presumably knew she was being taken in to Caesar in private.

The thing that annoys me about the whole Warrior Princess scenario is that to handle edged weapons really effectively takes strength, skill and practice, and that in turn takes training. It's not like a gun where you can learn the mechanics in a few hours or days and the gunpowder provides the power. So a Princess who can take her place on equal terms with the men in line of battle is going to have had to be training since age seven just as they have, or she'd be hopelessly outclassed. Which in turn means that training girls as warriors was either socially acceptable, in which case the entire structure of society would reflect it, or that her parents decided at an early stage to give her a highly unconventional upbringing, in which case that would surely say something pretty dramatic about her family. Yet these rarely if ever appear. The Warrior Princess springs fully armed from the head of Zeus, as it were, which is fine for Athene but a bit of a suspension of disbelief otherwise. One thing I like about Cornwell's Arthur trilogy is that his Guinevere helps win the Battle of Badon by strategy, not by waving a sword around.

I suppose I ought to say that none of the above applies to a woman, princess or otherwise, fighting in self-defence with whatever weapon comes to hand, or joining in a militia-type fight with the pig-killing knife alongside the shepherd with the pitchfork and the ploughman with the scythe, or using a hunting bow if she's learned to shoot for the pot. It's the fully-fledged professional-grade warrior that needs to be explained.

Kathryn Warner said...

I really must get round to reading the Mary Stewart Merlin trilogy. They've been on my TBR list for about 15 years. :) Ditto the Mary Renault.

I won't even get started on the whole Warrior Princess thing. Grr.

Rick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rick said...

Carla - scanty chain mail and big swords as utterly ridiculous and liable to look more like a cheap tart with a gimmick than a Warrior Queen

Realistically, that sounds exactly right - a politically shrewd princess does not want to be mistaken for Britney Spears, even before she shaved off her hair. In a male-dominated world she probably will use her sexuality if she can, but that is far more likely to mean witty conversation, with a whiff of flirtation, than prancing around in not very much - least of all on a battlefield.

Even Cleopatra supposedly got along far more on wit than looks, the Hollywood version to the contrary.

And of course what you say about women warriors is absolutely true - they'd have to train as much as their male counterparts (who spent a substantial part of their lives at it). Almost certainly more, in fact, because upper-body strength is crucial with hand weapons, and that's exactly where men have a considerable physiological advantage.

For sheer amusement, and thanks to the wonders of Poser software (actually DAZ Studio), here's a fair rendition of my own warrior princess. The treatment of historical costume is mighty loose (but at least she's wearing one!), and the hair even more so, but after all it's a different world.

The URL won't all print, so you'll have to copy & paste into one line:


-- Rick

Constance Brewer said...

I don't think a 'properly dressed for battle' female warrior cover would sell many books. Just my opinion. *g*
Being ex-militaryI can attest that most women cannot fight on the same level as males, even with training. Physical strength is an advantage, no way around that. The more removed from face to face combat you are, the less the physical matters.

Women have to be smarter about their fighting if they can't be stronger. In martial arts I could win against the guys with sword and bo because they counted on overwhelming me with brute strength, and I used that tendency against them. But if I couldn't end the fight quickly, I was toast.
I struggle with reading (and writing) about women that might as well be men for the way they handle swords and conduct war. Bows seem more logical a weapon for women, as does subterfuge and sex. :)

Rick said...

Constance - no, realistic battle gear on a gal wouldn't sell many books. (Though even realistic armor is perhaps cooler, visually, than modern battle gear.)

For ending a fight quickly, surprise surely helps! Quoting myself shamelessly, a scene in which one of my protagonist's ladies in waiting is giving the other a self-defense tip:

She took the poniard, turned it end-up, and put it back in Solange's hand. "Strike upward, below the ribs. With all your strength, if you must do it, and suddenly! While the assassin still thinks you a harmless woman! Do it!"

Solange jabbed the air, feeling foolish.

Madeleine laughed. "Well, that will stretch out a two-hundred-pound highwayman at your feet! I'll teach you some other time ..."

Constance Brewer said...

Heh, heh. Good exchange, Rick. Knife + strategic stab and surprise is a great combination. And if you do it just right, you don't even have to look at a lot of blood. :P

Yes, I am a blood wuss.

Carla said...

Alianore - as it happens, I have a Mary Renault review in the works. I was in two minds about posting it, partly because I thought absolutely everyone must already have read her books and formed their own opinion already, but now I think I will. Would a review on Mary Stewart's Merlin trilogy be any use to you?

Rick - I like that picture of your Catherine, it would appeal to me as a book cover more than the headless frock type :-) I like being able to see the face. She looks a determined sort of lady...

Constance - oh, many thanks for confirming that from military expertise! I know I'd be flattened in a fight in 30 seconds, and my heroines tend to try wits first for the same reason if at all possible. (Come to think of it, the girl in my current novel who gets exactly what she wants is also one who would never even think of picking up a weapon. She has much more effective ways of getting men to do what she wants).

Rick - well, you remember I quoted Terry Pratchett's take on warrior females in cover art a while back. 'Nuff said :-)
By the way, how come Madeleine knows to stab upwards? How did she learn? One of my girls has to learn it the hard way, by finding out in practice that the other way doesn't work.

Constance - is the absence of blood because the heart stops pumping right away and so the wound doesn't bleed much? Or is there some other reason?

Constance Brewer said...

xlwaiiCarla, Internal bleeding. Stab them in the right spots and they bleed to death internally instead of all that spurty blood when you slice willy-nilly. :) Liver, Kidney, Pancreas are all good spots to skewer.

Rick said...

Constance - In these situations, Maddie doesn't much worry about blood, so long as it isn't hers ...

Carla - I definitely prefer to see the heroine's head! The "headless frock" thing is downright tasteless, in fact, if the book is about Anne Boleyn. (I don't know if any book cover has done that - I hope not.)

Catherine is indeed a determined young lady - she intends to keep her head on her shoulders and her backside on the throne. My dream cover would have her looking much as here, but made to look sort of like a Holbein painting. I know, dream on - hell, they can give her a chainmail bikini and a sword too big for Conan to lift, so long as they publish the damn book!

Regarding how Mlle du Lac de Montpellier (later Duchess of Ashland) learned to thrust up under the ribs, first, where I learned it: from L. Sprague de Camp's wonderful Lest Darkness Fall, from which I also learned most of what I know about the Gothic War. He has a brief reference to a guy attacking with a knife using the "instinctive but tactically unsound overhand grip, which was enough to cue me in.

As for Madeleine, she's the daughter of an officer in the Aquitaine's royal stables, and the only sister of several brothers. Also, Papa holds the view that since honor is dead in these times, his little girl should know how to take care of herself if she has to.

Kathryn Warner said...

Carla, I'd be delighted to read a review of Stewart, and/or Renault - thanks!

Rick said...

Carla - me, too. I read Renault's Theseus books not long after the Bronze Age ended, but I haven't read her others, nor any of Stewart's.

Gabriele Campbell said...

I haven't read Renault yet, so a review would be nice.

I can see women use wit as weapon, but I have problems with them using sex. Maybe I'm too prudish, but I only feel contempt for a woman who uses sex to get what she wants, and that includes Cleopatra. The only one in my books who does it is a villain.

Btw, I don't like womanizers like Caesar, either. At least, those two were a good match. :)

Susan Higginbotham said...

Rick, the new UK edition of Jean Plaidy's Murder Most Royal (about Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard) does indeed have a headless woman cover. (Though at least there's a faint glimpse of chin left.)


Gabriele Campbell said...

Does that make her the Nearly Headless Anne?

Rick said...

That's really embarrassing. I wouldn't care for the headless lady on the cover at the best of times, but I was pretty much joking in the comment about Anne Boleyn. Marketing people!

Carla said...

Constance - Presumably one has to make sure the wound is a nice small stab hole so the internal bleeding doesn't leak out everywhere....?

Rick/Susan/Gabriele - Naturally, somebody's done an Anne Boleyn cover in the headless bodice style. How could you doubt it? It's certainly not an edition I'll buy; the picture makes my skin crawl in the context. I wonder if the design department got the reference to Anne's fate, or if it was just on the production line?

Rick - I can't remember where I came across the stab upwards thing, medical students at college, maybe? You can demonstrate it pretty well with an anatomical skeleton :-) I once found it in a historical mystery, whose mildly promising premise (some sort of conspiracy theory spy thriller about Alexander III of Scotland, you know, the one who fell off a cliff, or was he pushed?) fell apart for me as soon as the supposedly highly trained professional assassin stabbed his victim overhand from above.

Alianore/Rick/Gabriele - okay, I'll add Mary Stewart and Mary Renault to the review list. I'll have a review of one of the Theseus novels ready soon as I reread it recently, the others will have to wait until I get time to reread the books. (It's not fair to write a review on the basis of memories from shortly after college, which is not quite as far back as the Bronze Age (!) though it sometimes feels like it...)

Gabriele - I don't see anything especially wrong with a woman using sex to get her way; certainly no worse than a man using violence to get his, anyway. It all depends what she does with it and why.

Constance Brewer said...

Carla, yeah, no ripping and jerking the knife around. Use finesse. :)
You could just pull the knife halfway out, would be just as effective for internal bleeding. My martial arts instructor would be proud I paid attention during knife class and I'm actually putting his information to good use. Kinda. :)

Kathryn Warner said...

Carla, do you remember the name of the mystery about Alexander III, or the author? I'm really interested in him, so I'd like to read it (assassin's silly behaviour notwithstanding!)

Carla said...

Constance - or I suppose you could leave the knife embedded as a plug. I must say, I wouldn't like to annoy you, given your expertise :-)

Alianore - alas, no, I can't remember. I'm interested in Alexander as well, and not just for the conspiracy theories, so I'd like to find a good novel about him. This one wasn't it :-( If I remember anything about the title or author I'll let you know, but I think it's gone.

Gabriele Campbell said...

I suppose the sex thing is a pet peeve of mine. I've missed a promotion because I don't use sex to manipulate men. It should not happen in the company world today, but prove it does ....

Constance Brewer said...

Carla, I've practice martial arts, I never said I was GOOD at it. *g* You have little to fear.

It's been a great help for writing, though.

Bernita said...

Overhand, a knife tends to ladder off the ribs - so they tell me.

Carla said...

Gabriele - there are always people who'll abuse power in whatever form; I don't think they ever go away

Constance - whew, there's a relief :-) It must be immensely helpful in writing combat and fight scenes.

Bernita - yes, the ribs overlap each other slightly from above, like a cone, so the blade skids from one to the next and doesn't get in deep enough to do fatal damage

Constance Brewer said...

The only thing I might be able to knife overhand would be a hobbit. :)

Carla said...

Constancs - sounds like you're the same sort of height as me :-)

Gabriele Campbell said...

Lawhead has a new one out: Hood. King Raven Trilogy - a 'Robin Hood' set in Wales in 1093. The second one will be out in August, at least via Amazon.de.

Considering the fact Robin Hood is a myth anyway, I can do with a take that places him in Wales for a change. :)

Carla said...

Gabriele - I'd noticed he was doing Robin Hood, but haven't got around to reading it yet. If you read it I'll be interested to hear what you think.